Avery Island’s Favorite Albums of the Decade (00-09): 20-11

20. Mastodon – Leviathan, 2004

Mastodon were on an expressway towards perfection leading up to Blood Mountain. Leviathan, in terms of complexity, stands as a technical stepping stone, bridging their heavy metal tour de force Remission and the band’s progressive opus. Yet Leviathan is the record that temporarily stopped the press. It may be cooler than the fire-based Remission and less complex and illustrious than the earth-themed Blood Mountain, but this Herman Melville-inspired narrative is the one that inspired fledgling drummers to tear their snares to bits. One of the most vivid progressive music narratives we’ve seen since the 70’s, Leviathan is also without a doubt the most influential record of unmitigated metal since Master of Puppets in ’86.

For a hardcore metal band, Mastodon are a bit reserved in displaying their technical acumen through tedious soloing. Then again, you could say the same about Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin (Bonham-fest “Moby Dick” ironically excluded), or Melvins, three of the most iconic bands in modern metal and some of the Atlanta band’s most solid influences. Calling Leviathan a drum-driven record is no insult at all, as the engine-revving fills are more integral to the sense of chaos . Every sludgy riff is a brutal wave threatening to pummel the Pequod into bits, every cymbal crash a spray of sea water, every snare the satisfying slap of the tempest against the mighty beast’s fleshy body.

Mastodon simply do what needs to be done to finish their grand portrait. Ironically, in skirting excesses Mastodon have made one of the leanest metal records of the decade. The only difference is that Leviathan is the one that will show up in Rolling Stone 20 years from now.

19. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It in People, 2002

You Forgot It In People is a tough album to conceptualize. It doesn’t blend genres so much as it plays like a mixtape of different ones, ranging from post-rock, to alternative anthems, to jazz, and almost everything in between. However, Broken Social Scene pull it all off because they have more than just instrumental cohesion and skill on their side; they have a creative soul to weld together seemingly unrelated songs into an entire album that moves along briskly and easily. You Forgot It In People is relentlessly restless in it’s pursuit of exploring every territory it can, as if every member of the enormous band is a kid in a candy store just cherry-picking from their favorite records and splicing them together with the care of a surgeon.

Using the immortally devious practice of the great “music math equation”, “Stars and Sons” sounds like Modest Mouse by way of Yo La Tengo, “Almost Crimes” is proto-Walkmen with a saxophone, and”Anthems of A Seventeen-Year-Old-Girl” is a mixture Sufjan Stevens folk bliss with an odd vocal melody that sounds like a guest on a Max Tundra album; and that’s only three songs. To even begin to talk about how “Cause = Time” sounds almost exactly like Dinosaur Jr or that “Pitter Patter Goes My Heart” is steeped in Arcade Fire baroque pop charms seems irrelevant; all the comparisons, though effectively descriptive, under-sell the originality and talent on display on You Forgot It In People, which bends and warps ideas and influences easily and skillfully. More importantly than how it sounds though is the overall impression it leaves, and in that measure, You Forgot It In People is unforgettable.

18. The Avalanches – Since I Left You, 2000

There are certain albums that define their genre, moving them forward and setting an example for the years to come. The Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique was a perfect amalgamation of the hip-hop talent of the three MCs from Brooklyn and the Dust Brothers themselves, setting the standard for sample-heavy hip-hop. DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. furthered the work started by Paul’s Boutique by being one of the finest examples of instrumental hip-hop and expanding the dynamic range of samples. The Avalanches first and only album so far, released a decade ago, is still waiting to be topped; it’s a work of stunning clarity and astounding range and continues the trend set by the former works brilliantly. The entire album flows as naturally as the rapids on the cover, and much like them, can be startlingly choppy and dangerously fun.

Since I Left You is a work without lyrics or an obvious narrative, but it moves like it does, with vocal samples hinting at overarching themes of changes in perspective, finding beauty in the undiscovered, and living in the moment. In a way, it’s like going on a vacation you never went on, with the title track greeting you with “Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise” and summarily introducing you to paradise. Like Daft Punk’s Discovery, Since I Left You relies heavily on repetition and elongated development. However, unlike Discovery, Since I Left You develops quickly and is always moving, bending, and changing; it knows when enough is enough and constantly reintroduces sample motifs and melodies to reinforce the overall unity of the album. Since I Left You is a dangerous album because it risks so much, yet it pulls it off easily; it blends genres, it has emotion, and unlike so much electronic music, it has real heart and soul that you hear in every bass beat.

17. Grizzly Bear – Yellow House, 2006

Before Yellow House, no one would have believed that Grizzly Bear could create this album. Their debut (which was more of a solo album by Droste), Horn of Plenty, was an average work that was good in patches, but overstayed it’s welcome. Well, Yellow House is not a Droste solo-effort, but instead a work by four guys that suddenly meshed into a songwriting zeitgeist of epic proportions. The craftsmanship and attention to detail on the album is staggering, with much of the album’s rustic charm coming from it’s homey surroundings and it’s lush production by bassist Chris Taylor, who drenches the album in atmosphere.

Yellow House is an album that sounds like the work of a band, not just a group of people. Using a technique that would become their staple, the album largely abandons traditional song structure in favor of placing various crescendos and valleys throughout, making Yellow House an album that truly shines as an album, not just a set of songs. Each track just makes sense in the context of the previous one. Utilizing such a dynamic form enhancing the effect of many songs too, the prime example of this being “On A Neck, On A Split”, easily the fastest song on the album. However, since their is no precedent for it’s energy, it becomes a highlight of the album. Some people may accuse them of being boring, but make no mistake, Grizzly Bear are quickly becoming one of the premier American indie acts, and Yellow House is their defining moment.

16. The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema, 2005

Unlike most people, we’re under the impression that Twin Cinema is the New Pornographers best albums; better than Mass Romantic, which was a rare album by a super group that didn’t simply work or perform to expectations. We’re also in the minority in that we think Twin Cinema is the decade’s best power-pop album: better than even the blissful guitar-pop of Vampire Weekend. It’s an album that solidifies the New Pornographers not simply as a “super group”, which is already an arbitrary term, but as a full-fledged band, led by A.C. Newman, who manages his cast of characters as skillfully as a nimble marionette. Neko Case’s full, beautiful voice is used to full effect without being dominant, Dan Bejar submits his best work with the band to date (“Jackie Dressed In Cobras” even succeeds over “Jackie”), and even the minor names no one seems to remember shine, like bassist John Collins.

However, if we’re talking about under-appreciated performances, look no further than drummer Kurt Dahle, who rules over the album with his outrageous manual dexterity and penchant for deploying devastatingly effective fills at perfect times (think of him as the Brann Dailor of the indie world). Just listen to how he steers songs like “Use It” and “The Jessica Numbers” with an almost 80s sensibility for catchy drum rolls. Although, overall, like Yellow House, Twin Cinema is a family affair, the last time the band sounded not just like a group of famous people doing what fans wanted but rather like a conglomerate of like-minded pop geniuses. The previously mentioned “Jackie Dressed In Cobras” and songs like “These Are the Fables” are obvious highlights, but even seemingly throw-away numbers like “Streets of Fire” (terrific film by the way) and “Broken Beads” are still incredible. Any way you look at it, Twin Cinema isn’t simply an improvement on an already terrific formula; it’s an ultimatum made after almost a decade of limp-dick pop non-sense. Consider them the new Cheap Trick. The new Fleetwood Mac. The new, well, the New Pornographers.

15. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes, 2008

A great album doesn’t have to be technically impressive to be great. It doesn’t have to be loaded with one explosion of melodic flourishes after the other to keep the attention of impetuous teeny-boppers. It doesn’t even need high-grasping lyrical concepts redolent with vague references to 20th century social philosophers and experimental novelists. Sometimes a great album comes along and you know its great simply by virtue of its spirit. It intimates you as if from one human to another, directly and uninhibited by digital restraints, skewering you to the soul with a convalescent power.

Fleet Foxes harbor this spirit, hidden beneath the guise of their rustic charm. Acoustic guitars clamor in reverence to tall grasses, cool mountains, and winter snow, a trait most likely inherited from Robin Pecknold’s childhood experiences in the woods and beaches of Washington. Motivated by his appreciation for Joni Mitchell, Phil Elverum, and Harry Nilsson, Pecknold strove through great financial adversity to assemble Fleet Foxes. His hard work became their EP Sun Giant and later their debut Fleet Foxes, a pristine capsule of backwoods folk, richly ornamented with rapturous vocal harmonies and energetically delivered by some of the best representatives of this humble music scene.

The 21st century trend suggests that artists should digitize themselves, deliver their souls gift-wrapped within the compactness of compressed mp3s and littered with synthetic doodads to fill the soundscape left empty by an absence of spirit. Fleet Foxes boldly reject this trend, choosing to rely instead on folk styles from as early as the 60’s. It’s neither cultural relevance nor self-reverential bombast that puts this group in the limelight, but pure candor, and they’re all the more remarkable for it.

14. Outkast – Stankonia, 2000

Aside from being just about the most important hip-hop album of the decade, it was also one of the best. Stankonia is Outkast’s best album and aside from containing their most popular songs (“Mrs. Jackson”, “So Fresh So Clean”), it also has their best ones (“B.O.B.”, “Gasoline Dreams”). Although even beyond the “superficial” stuff like the fact that Andre 3000 and Big Boi rap like gods on it, the fact that the production is rich and fluid, or that it will be (or already is) remembered as one the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time, Stankonia represents something larger than all of that. Arguably, it represents the beginning of the true commercial acceptance of hip-hop as a valid genre, with Outkast being hailed as not just a great hip-hop group, but as one of the best pop acts in music.

How could you deny it? Stankonia is an album of surprising depth and stunning creativity, with even seemingly superficial raps like “So Fresh So Clean” being brilliantly tongue-in-cheek and self-aware. “Gasoline Dreams” is a brutal look at the world around them (“All of my heroes did dope/Every nigga round here playing maverick or child support”) and “Spaghetti Junction” is a G-Funk exercise that would fit right in on Doggystyle. However, the real centerpiece of the album is “B.O.B.”, a blazing amalgamation of genres and topics that is still scarily relevant even to this day, it’s chorus chant of “Bombs over Baghdad” sounding like a warning or a foretelling rather than an anachronistic allusion. Stankonia is the ultimate album by Outkast; it’s socio-political commentary in it’s rawest form. Some people might not think a jaded genre like hip-hop would be the one to deliver such intelligent satire, but Outkast aren’t exactly your average pop group.

13. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion, 2009

Genesis, Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, Beach Boys, Captain Beefheart, Can, fucking Sonic Youth. For a band with so many influences, it’s amazing how Animal Collective manage to consistently sound nothing like any of them. It’s also amazing how, considering their roughly ten-year youth as a band, they’ve managed to almost consistently do nothing but improve upon their precursory material. Sung Tongs proved the refinement of their atmospheric artisanship, then Feels and Strawberry Jam followed up as tight exercises in popularly appealing songs. Then just last year, Merriweather Post Pavilion hit the docks shortly before spring even had a chance to greet the sun. In less than a month, end-of-the-year lists were already being written.

The songs were all-around better, thicker, faster, prettier, noisier, and most definitely catchier. “My Girls” is born out of a foggy arpeggio like a ghost from shadows, slowly coalescing into a fireside ballad of rhythmic elation; “Summertime Clothes” is an explosive dance hiding a modest expression of love; and closer “Brothersport” starts as an African-esque romp before quickly spiraling into an amorphic Ecstasy-meets-LSD wormhole.

Almost ironically, lines like “I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls” suggest that the band, rather than growing wilder and more animal-like, is maturing and becoming comfortable with the world around them. And this immediate humanity is what makes Merriweather Post Pavilion the genre-defying masterpiece it is, not the firefly arpeggios or the bouncy rhythms. No doubt Animal Collective were the band of ’09, but they’re also most certainly one that has and will define the 00’s even as the 10’s are well on their way.

12. Kanye West – Late Registration, 2005

The most important and interesting figure of hip-hop was not Kanye West, but that didn’t stop him trying to be. His seemingly insatiable appetite to prove himself to be the best hip-hop artist since his mentor Jay-Z was endearing if a bit unwarranted, but if College Dropout didn’t show that he might just be as good as he thought he was, Late Registration sure did. On it, Kanye not only exceeds his previous effort, but also grew as both an MC and as a producer. Sure, it’d be a while until he actually out-gunned Lil Wayne (which, by the way, he did easily on Graduation just two years later), but he sounds primed and ready on the album. It didn’t hurt to have guests like the silky-smooth Lupe Fiasco or even Adam Levine to prop him up, but beyond that, he didn’t sound like he needed it; from the first moments of “Heard ‘Em Say”, the most emotionally satisfying single he’s released, West sounds like a different man.

He touches upon familiar territory for the most part, but instead of just rehashing, he tells stories in broad, relatable strokes (“Me and my Momma hopped in that U-Haul van/Any pessimists, I ain’t talk to them/Plus I ain’t have no phone in my apart-a-ment”). Elsewhere, “Roses” is boldly literal, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)” is a deft commentary on materialism, and “Gone” is a dramatic self-exploration of fame and Kanye West himself. Song for song and pound for pound, the album glows with an excellent production and sense of scale, “We Major” being the ultimate centerpiece, a sprawling song of actual beauty (in hip-hop?!) and relevance (“I heard the beat and I ain’t know what to write/first line: should it be about the hoes or the ice?”). Ultimately, Late Registration is a triumph, an album that would have sounded a lot like it’s predecessor if it didn’t advance it’s sound as brilliantly as it did. Sometimes, even if it hurts to admit, when someone says that they’re a genius, they fucking mean it, and Late Registration is Kanye’s proof.

11. Joanna Newsom – Ys, 2006

Joanna Newsom proved she could majestic and idiosyncratic pop songs songs on her debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, however it wasn’t until the magnificent Ys that she proved that she was not just an oddly entrancing beauty with a harp, but also one of the great songwriters of the generation. On Ys, even the smallest of details are given grandiose life with stunningly rendered prose: “I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water/frowning at the angle where they were lost and slipped under forever/In a mud cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky was breathing on a mirror.”

Her incredible dexterity both lyrically and instrumentally (she is an accomplished harpist after all) often is secondary to her divisive voice, which is reminiscent of 50s blues singers such as Billie Holiday. It’s a shame, because if you’re anything like us, Ys and Have One On Me are amplified in impact because of this ornate approach; at points, she sounds absolutely beautiful on Ys. We would be remiss however if we failed to mention the orchestral accompaniments courtesy of Van Dyke Parks, who dips and weaves along with the narratives to great effect. It’s not simply a syrup solution to add a layer of sweetness on an already gorgeous album; it is a fully integral part of the album’s sound.

She may not win points with the shallow, but Ys rewards not only patience, but labor, with each line being deviously cryptic. However, it is ultimately a labor of love, because Ys is an album that doesn’t call for minor, reserved emotions. It calls for all-out spite or enamored passion: we’re in the later category. Why shouldn’t we be? Ys is a lovingly-crafted and densely-written masterpiece that defies most conventional genres and becomes a wholly original album. Not many albums can claim that. Ys does.

Tell me more, O wise ones! [10-1]

Wait a sec, Feels? Really? [[30-21]

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2 Comments

  1. 09/02/10: It…Forget It…New List Portion « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] Avery Island’s Favorite Albums (00-09): 20-11 […]

  2. 09/03/10: Last Day of the List (EDIT) « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] 30-21 […]

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